When it comes to fine art, it’s amazing the difference a guided tour from a curator makes to your experience. It really helps you see paintings with fresh eyes, particularly when viewed with a specific theme in mind.
In advance of her Bite-size Museum talk on States of Dress and Undress, Associate Curator, Alexandra Loske walked me round the galleries where we studied portraits (mostly of women, by women artists) through the lens of their dress. This added – if you excuse the pun – another layer to certain artworks, some of which I already admired and others I had not previously noticed.
Do Clothes Speak?
Just as our own clothes and the choices we make about them speaks volumes about ourselves, so too does the clothing chosen by artists in their work. Alexandra pointed out that clothing is invariably a very conscious and deliberate choice made by the artist, which made me wonder what say, if any, their subjects ever get?
And if an artist was to revise an artwork, simply by changing the subject’s clothing, how much would it alter the artwork’s meaning and impact?
I hadn’t given enough thought to the role of dress in paintings, my attention always tends to focus on the subject’s face, expression and attitude, but since materials and fabrics naturally degrade over the centuries, paintings clearly play an invaluable role in capturing not only changing fashions, but also changing mores in society.
We started with a few fairly conventional examples, such as Johann Zoffany court portrait of John Maddison cloaked in rich furs in a carefully staged statement of his status, before moving upstairs to consider the work of female artists.
The Grand Tour Look
Two portraits by Angelica Kauffman dominate the back wall of the gallery. One simply titled Portrait of a Woman, pictures a lady in extravagant Neapolitan dress against the backdrop of the Bay of Naples. The sitter is unknown but this scarcely matters, as the painting showcases the artist’s technique capturing fine silks and brocade, and presents the image of the sophisticated and worldly grand tourist, a look and lifestyle which many well-to-do ladies of the early 1800s aspired to.
Nearly Nudes, Naturalism & Fancy Dress
Moving into the 20th century, the portraits become more naturalistic, work clothes are pictured for the first time and there is more flesh on show too. Some of these works feel more intimate, with the subjects often pictured averting the viewer’s gaze, seemingly absorbed in a private moment.
This brings us to possibly my favourite artwork in the gallery, Dod Procter’s Early Morning (1927). This wonderfully sensual painting pictures a woman in a state of semi-slumber, her simple clothing merging with the bedclothes, emphasizing her shape. Alexandra describes the subject as ‘nearly-nude’ and points out how the folds in her dress resemble marble, suggesting classical allusions.
(As an aside, it made me ask myself if admiring an artwork like this as a man counts as a type of female objectification.Perhaps that’s an appropriate thing to ponder in a gallery highlighting female artists?)
Another work which really stands out is Veronica Burleigh’s Self-Portrait with the Artist’s Parents (1937). With her confident stance and uber-chic oval sunglasses, the artist presents herself here as the very picture of modernity, flanked by her two artist parents.
One of the more curious paintings in this gallery is Constance Rea’s Ladies of Quality, c.1910–1912. Here a group of women are pictured in a park wearing what looks fancy dress from a previous era. The conspiratorial looks they exchange gives the painting a slightly sinister feel somehow, while also reminding me of Maisie Broadhead’s Peepers installation.
The role of clothing and identity is a theme which permeates other parts of the collections too. In the next gallery you’ll find the Renegade Fashion Collection, an incredibly diverse sweep of clothing from the past 50 years or so, with every type of modern subculture featured, from mods, rockers and skinheads to cyberpunks, new age hippies, casuals and goths. These outfits were directly sourced from members of these modern-day ‘tribes’, alongside their own photos and oral histories, including a current staff member.
Next year the gallery casts its gaze further afield too, with the Fashion Cities Africa exhibition, which will look at the variety of styles, commerce and culture emanating from four fashion hubs across the continent: Casablanca (Morocco), Nairobi (Kenya), Lagos (Nigeria) and Johannesburg (South Africa).
States of Dress and Undress is a free Bite-size Museum event in Brighton Museum on Tuesday May 5 at 12pm.Brighton Museum boasts a strong body of early twentieth century art, including significant works by women painters. The current display in the main Fine Art gallery reflects this aspect of the collection and can be seen in connection with the more recently developed collection ‘Fashion and Style’.Alexandra Loske will bring these two aspects together and consider the use of costume and dress by both artists and sitters in a few examples drawn from the collection, and there may even be time for a stroll through the ‘Fashion and Style’ gallery.